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International Socialist Review, Summer 1997

Notes of the Quarter

Clinton: bipartisan president

From International Socialist Review, Issue 1, Summer 1997.
Copied with thanks from the ISR Archive
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

Liberals justified Clinton’s shredding of social programs in his first term as an unfortunate necessity, the outcome of a weak economy and a resurgent Republican right. Yet now that the economy is booming and the Republican “revolution” is in full retreat, the cuts have not been reversed but are intensifying. The crisis now is one of the nature of liberalism itself.

The recession of the early ’90s shaded into the weakest recovery of the century. Growth was so anemic that recovery felt like lingering recession. Massive budget deficits and staggering government debt were menacing enough to frighten workers, who accepted austerity cuts for fear of an even bigger bust.

The only disagreement between Clinton and Gingrich was how far and how fast to dismantle the social welfare gains won by the great struggles of the 1930s and ’60s. Clinton’s option was to gradually slice away at social programs. But Clinton’s scalpel was too small for the Republican “revolutionaries,” whose approach to all social problems is the meat cleaver. Gingrich’s suicidal shutdown of the government to force through deeper cuts settled the issue. Clinton was re-elected because his opponents insisted on presenting themselves as the “Greater Evil.”

For the first time in a decade the economy is now in a real boom. Growth rates are the best since the mid-80s. To be sure, these rates were only average during the decades of the postwar boom. They are now acclaimed in triumphalist fashion as the second coming of American capitalism. While the boom lasts, the excuses of the ’90s – that Medicare, Social Security, food stamps and child welfare are not affordable – have melted with the exuberance of prosperity. But though the excuses evaporate, worse cuts continue, with capitalist greed the only remaining justification.

On the basis of optimistic economic forecasting the Congressional Budget Office was able, on paper, to project $225 billion in new government receipts in the next five years. Under the old austerity budget, Clinton proposed slashing Medicare by $100 billion, unlike the evil Republicans who wanted to cut it by $125 billion. Now with the prosperous new budgetary windfall of $225 billion, Clinton and the liberals could propose to roll back the cuts. Surely that would be a politically popular move. Instead they are for cutting Medicare even more – by $115 billion. The new-found government money is to go for a capital gains cut, a tax break for the rich to lock in their recent stock market profits. Oh, the wonders of lesser evilism.

For Medicare, read all other social programs. The obscene destruction of Head Start for kids, of food stamps for the unemployed and working poor, the wholesale shredding of welfare – approved by the Democratic Party liberals – are to be implemented in the second term, without a drop of deficit justification. What remains of welfare is rapidly being privatized. Arms contractors like Lockheed who got plush government contracts during the Cold War are now going to be compensated for the end of the Cold War with plush welfare contracts. Even orphanages will now be run for profit. As for the orphans themselves, they and any other kids 13 or over who commit violent crimes are to be tried as adults and placed in adult prisons. Meanwhile the Consumer Price Index is to be cut by some undisclosed amount so that Medicare and Social Security payments are brought down, as well as all union contracts with COLA (cost of living allowances). And this is just for openers. The beginning of the second term makes Clinton’s first term seem like a riot of progressivism.

The boom phase of the business cycle underscores the underlying class and political dynamics of contemporary capitalism. Despite the hype about the best economy in decades, the social wage is cut in both booms and busts. There will be no return to the postwar boom, living standards will not rise but will decline, reforms will not be granted, and take-backs of past gains will continue. This rising tide does not lift all boats. Instead, as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich said last year, “The rising tide has lifted the yachts.” These are not the indices of a healthy system.

What is true about capitalism is true about its political parties. At the height of the boom not one liberal politician has proposed any modest change to better people’s lives. Modern liberalism is no longer a vehicle for social reform, no matter how gradual or modest. It is a vehicle for managing the status quo. The leaderships of the labor, Black, women’s and gay movements, who have endlessly preached the “realism” of subordinating social struggles to Democratic Party electoralism, have reached a dead end. They have nothing to show for their efforts. The idea that change can only come from a struggle from below has compelling urgency. The job of revolutionaries is to win that argument with all those whose illusions will continue to be shattered in Clinton’s second term.

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